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Editor’s note:  As the only survivor among the torpedo bomber aircrews who launched from the USS Hornet (CV-8) during the Battle of Midway, the testimony of Ensign George H. Gay as to exactly what happened to his squadron and to himself on that day has been of major interest to students of the battle.  Gay’s recollections of those events are found primarily in his book, Sole Survivor, and in various interviews in which he participated over the years, most notably his lengthy Navy Department interview in October 1943.


While it may seem futile to dispute the recollections of a “sole survivor,” that is exactly what has happened on the Battle of Midway Roundtable.  Certain elements of Gay’s account have proven vulnerable when compared against Japanese records of the battle.  A detailed discussion of some of his more controversial statements can be found in No Right to Win, pages 198-204.


Review and criticism of Gay’s claims began in earnest on the Roundtable in 2004.  The matter was summarized in No Right to Win in 2006, but it surfaced once again late in 2007 when a member offered a possible rationalization for Gay’s principal claim of seeing three Japanese carriers burning (which seems unlikely given their location relative to him and to each other).  The discussion continued in several issues of the Roundtable Forum newsletter, culminating in the following analysis by Jon Parshall, co-author of Shattered Sword.  In this report, Jon brings a level of detail to the debate far beyond anything previously seen.  Whether it settles the matter with finality is for each reader to decide.


Note that Jon’s narrative is aided by four new charts that he made especially for this presentation.  They are adapted from the charts found in Shattered Sword.  You can open each one in your browser by clicking the provided link in the text below.  (If you use recent versions of either Internet Explorer or the Firefox browser, right-click each link in order to open it in a separate tab.)  You may also find it helpful to save the images in a folder and view them with your image program.



21 December 2007

From:  Jon Parshall


I sat down this week and tried to take a rigorous approach to figuring out where Ensign Gay ended up in relation to the Japanese carrier striking force.  My thought was that if I could figure that out, it would be possible to deduce what he saw, and what portions of his account might be credible.  I confess that I was initially skeptical at the notion that Gay landed anywhere near enough to Kido Butai to have seen much of the subsequent dive-bomber attack.  However, having examined the evidence at hand, I've had to rein in at least some of my skepticism.  When you really start digging into it, Gay's account is maddeningly difficult to pull apart, and seems to contain a mixture of fact and fiction.  So, I apologize in advance for the length of this, but I want to lay out my reasoning to the knowledgeable folks on the Roundtable because they may have other pieces of information that I don't have.


My analysis is mainly based on the derived course track information we have for Kido Butai.  Akagi's course changes and speed are in the Nagumo Report entries, if you know how to ferret them out.  And from those entries it's possible to roughly deduce what the rest of the carrier formation was doing as well.  Those of you who have Shattered Sword should refer to the map on page 218, because that's the Akagi track course that I used for my exercise.  I've also included some illustrations based on that map that show the likely positions of the Japanese carriers during VT-8's attack.

Chart 1:  VT-8 begins its attack, 0917

There are a number of things we have to remember as we embark on this exercise:


1.      The Japanese carrier formation is pretty spread out.  The carriers are operating several miles apart from each other.


2.      Likewise, the outer ring of destroyers (indicated by my shaded blue circle on the diagrams) is pretty widely dispersed, having been pushed out to the edge of the formation to act as anti-air raid warning pickets.


3.      Carrier Division 2 [Soryu and Hiryu] has pulled ahead of CarDiv 1 [Akagi and Kaga] by 0917. As such, it is in the lead of the formation when VT-8 attacks, but will be in the rear of the formation when all the carriers turn tail to run away from the American torpedo planes.


One final thing to remember is that we have very little information about VT-8's attack.  Even regarding Gay's own attack, strictly speaking, we have no evidence about his actions except what he told us.  He might not even have attacked at all.  I'm not saying that he didn't.  But from a strict evidentiary standpoint we need to remember that we don't really know if he did or if he didn't.  We have no way of checking on that.  All we know from the Japanese side is that some of the American planes did attack.  Whether Gay's was one of those planes is unknown.  I don't say this to besmirch Gay's memory or anything, but as an historian you have to understand that I'm not supposed to take first-person accounts at face value if I can help it.  I'd like to have some corroborating evidence.  But we don't have that.


Given that, we just have to assume that he did attack and that his attack occurred roughly as he stated.  Gay believed that he was the last plane to attack, and that none of his squadron mates made it close enough to attack with him.  That statement is mildly contradicted by the Japanese sources.  The attack diagrams in the Nagumo Report indicate that Soryu was attacked by two torpedo planes (or had to dodge two torpedoes).  Common sense would tend to indicate that if there were a pair of torpedo aircraft that attacked Soryu, that Gay's was one of these.  Likewise, common sense would also indicate that his was one of the last, if not the last aircraft to attack and subsequently to be shot down.


The diagram I am including for 0917 [link above] indicates the rough positions of the Japanese carriers as VT-8 begins its attack.  VT-8 was spotted very far out, and the CAP apparently started making kills while Waldron, et al were still well away from the formation.  Just when Gay made his attack on Soryu is open to question.  Some of the diagrams in the Nagumo report indicate that she was attacked at precisely 0930.  But the log entries seem to indicate that one or more American aircraft were still attacking as late as 0936 or so.  The Japanese indicate that the last torpedo plane was shot down at 0942, that is, a minute after VT-6 has been detected coming in from the south, and the Japanese are already turning to the northwest to begin running away from them.


The question is, then, where did Gay likely come down?  And depending on the answer to that first question, what could Gay have seen of the subsequent events of the morning and afternoon?  To my mind, there are two scenarios that illustrate the spectrum of possibilities.  We'll explore each of them in turn.


Scenario One

Chart 2:  Soryu at 0930

The first scenario posits that Gay attacks Soryu at 0930 (i.e. relatively early in the sequence of events) and then gets shot down very soon (i.e. almost immediately) after attacking her.  Prange's rendition of Gay's attack, as well as Gay's own account would tend to support the notion that he ditched very quickly.  So, if we assume that (1) the attack on Soryu came at the earliest time indicated in the Nagumo Report, and (2) that Gay makes that attack, and (3) that Gay goes down immediately thereafter, then Gay will drop into the water very near Soryu's position as of 0930 [see Chart 2].  And if that's the case, he will have a very difficult time observing the subsequent activities of the morning.


If you take a look on the map, you can see a little triangle at 1026.  That is where Akagi gets bombed by Dick Best, almost an hour after George Gay hits the water.  Akagi is the closest carrier he could have seen, because Kaga was located several miles further west of Akagi at this time.  CarDiv 2 (Hiryu and Soryu) are approximately ten miles further north and running to the northwest at high speed.  So, if Scenario One is correct, the closest carrier Gay could have seen at 1026 (Akagi) is a minimum of 12 nautical miles (and more likely 13 nm) away at this time.  The question then becomes, how far away can George Gay see Akagi?


The formula for finding one's visual horizon is d = square root of (13 x h), where h = height of target in meters, and d = distance in kilometers.  Technically, when you do this sort of thing, you have to calculate the visual horizon of both targets, and add them together.  But George Gay, floating in his life ring, was essentially at height = zero, so I'm going to ignore his own visual horizon—it  was very limited.  What matters here was Akagi's visual horizon, since she was the tallest thing Gay could have seen.  The top of Akagi's gun director on her island is almost exactly 100 feet, or 31 meters, above the waterline.  Grinding the formula, we get d = sqrt of (13 x 31), which is sqrt of essentially 400, which is (conveniently) 20.  That's 20 kilometers, or 10.7 nautical (not statute) miles (remember, my diagram is in nautical miles.)  Likewise, grinding the formula again for Akagi's flight deck (which was 63 feet above water), you get a visual horizon of 8.5 nautical miles.


What does this mean?  It means that if we buy into Scenario One, at 1026 it is very unlikely that George Gay was able to see any portion of Akagi at all.  He certainly could not have seen her flight deck.  If he could see Akagi, it would only have been fleeting glimpses of a very small black dot on the horizon where her island was.  Beyond almost any doubt, with waves and all that, he wouldn't have been able to see any portion of her.


Likewise, under this scenario, could he have seen the American aircraft attacking something to the north?  I don't know.  My gut is to say that 13 nm is a long way away for a guy paddling in the water to have seen a diving Dauntless going after a target he couldn't even see.  We painted our planes blue for a reason, after all—to avoid being seen.  We know that the cloud cover was intermittent, and that the Japanese (obviously) didn't see those same aircraft until they were practically on top of them (except in the case of Hiryu, which noted American dive-bombers and tried to relay a warning to Kaga just before the final attack.)  Gay had no idea what to look for, no intimation that the attack was coming, and no ability to gauge where the Japanese carriers were over the horizon.  So if Scenario One is correct, I doubt that he witnessed any of the particulars of the 1020 attack.  Even if he did see some American dive-bombers, he would not have been able to see what was being bombed.


Scenario Two

Chart 3:  Soryu at 0938


Scenario Two posits that (1) Gay's attack occurred later in the sequence of VT-8's attack (i.e. around 0936) and (2) he managed to stay aloft long enough to reach the outer ring of escorts before he's shot down at about 0942 (the latest time indicated by the Japanese records).  If this is true, Gay's attack occurs when Soryu is as shown in Chart 3.  The outer ring of escorts is indicated by the edge of the big light blue circle.  This scenario is easier to analyze, in a sense, because the unknowns are so great that the answer to where Gay ended up is largely indeterminate.  Frankly, with his plane moving 1.6 nm/minute, 6 minutes of flying time could put him up to 10 nautical miles in any direction from where Soryu was attacked.  That's a circle 20 miles across comprising more than 300 square miles of ocean.  He could be anywhere in there.


However, IF you believe that George Gay turned away to the north or northwest to try to exit the fleet AND IF he was able to stay aloft for six minutes before being pancaked, well, that makes his subsequent story potentially more credible.  Given that Soryu was somewhat north and east of Akagi during the beginning of VT-8's attack, it's conceivable that Gay could have ended up in the water relatively close to where Akagi and Kaga would be bombed an hour later.  And if that's true, he could have seen the 1020 dive-bombing attack in some detail.




I'm not enough of a scholar on VT-8’s attack to opine as to how quickly Gay went into the water.  Someone like Mark Horan would be better informed on that matter.  However, most of what I've seen would tend to indicate that he actually splashed fairly quickly after attacking Soryu, due to his rudder and ailerons being shot away by Zeros.  You'll note that his account given during the war says the following:


" I pulled up and went over them, dropped back down next to the water, just after I passed over the fantail [of Soryu] and then I heard the torpedo go off.  Just a little bit after that, then anti-aircraft fire hadn't picked up anymore, but the Zeros jumped on me and I was trying to get out of the fleet.  Before I got away from them, though, the five Zeros dived right down on me in a line and about the second or third one shot my rudder control and ailerons out and I pancaked into the ocean."


In other words, he was trying to get out from the center of the fleet, but he didn't make it.  And in fact, it would appear that he crashed very shortly after his attack on Soryu.  Given that, I would tend to think that Scenario One is the more likely of the two. However, he then goes on to say a mixture of things, some of which ring true for me, others of which don't.  The first is his comment on watching one of the carriers steam past him while landing aircraft:


By the way, that was an interesting operation.  The Zeros were coming aboard and they'd circle way back behind the ship, have 1500 or 1000 feet altitude above her and coming straight in on their low gliding approach, coming in straight and they weren't landing planes nearly as fast as we do.  It seemed to be a slow operation.  I don't know what kind of arresting gear they had aboard ships; it seemed to stop them pretty well as soon as they hit the deck; must have had a number of wires because when they landed in all kinds of different places it would stop right off, but I was a little bit interested in watching that, but I didn't care to do it at such close hand.


The fact that he was able to comment on the relatively low speed of aircraft recovery is interesting, because everything I know about Japanese carrier deck ops suggests that he's probably right on that point—the Japanese were somewhat slower in taking aircraft aboard, because sometimes they stowed their aircraft below deck serially, rather than using a deck park and then stowing them below en masse.  In the case of CAP Zeros, I think that's more likely, to be honest—it doesn't take that much longer to stow three aircraft one at a time.  So that resonates.


This passage is doubly interesting, though, for another reason.  Only two Japanese aircraft carriers recovered aircraft during the 0930 to 1025 time frame: Soryu and Akagi.  Soryu brought down three fighters at 0930, i.e. immediately before or during the climax of VT-8's attack.  Akagi brought down two fighters at 0951, and then a trio at 1010.  So, IF Gay actually witnessed recovery operations, he had to have been looking at either Soryu or Akagi.  Given that it seems most likely that Gay should have gone in the water after 0930, that means he had to have been looking at Akagi.  This is interesting, though, in that Gay makes it seem like he saw these flight operations immediately after exiting his sinking aircraft.  Yet, by all rights he should have been in the water by 0942 at the latest, i.e. at least ten minutes prior to Akagi's 0951 recovery.  I've noted over the years that veteran accounts of these sorts of events often get telescoped in time—that is, the sequence of events seems much shorter than it actually was.  That may be what's going on here. T hat's speculation, though.


In this same passage, he mentions that the Japanese carriers...


“...went right by me about 500 yards to the west of me and the cruiser that was with her was only a thousand yards, screen and I presume, went by about 500 yards to the east of me headed north and they circled back.”


At first glance, that doesn't ring true, because the course information we have indicates clearly that the Japanese force didn't do any "circling back" to the south.  From the time of VT-6’s attack at 0940 up until the end, all the carriers were headed consistently north-ish: either NW away from VT-6, then NE to close the enemy at around 1000, then NW again at 1010 to avoid VT-3.  I am much more inclined to rely on the Japanese information regarding their ship movements than what George Gay thought he saw in the water—these were, after all, Japanese ships, and their records must be given precedence.


The only thing I can figure here is that Gay was close enough to see Kido Butai make a turn of some sort, and then interpreted that as "circling back."  If you look at the course track I've provided [Chart 3], if I had to make a guess, and IF we believe Scenario Two (which I'm still up in the air about), I would say he might have been sitting near the 1010 marker on Akagi's course track.  Maybe he's a bit east of there.  We know Akagi turned briefly into the wind at 1010 to recover three fighters (which might also have been the recovery operation that Gay witnessed, although his own account would make the 0951 recovery seem more likely) and then immediately turned around and ran to the NW to avoid VT-3’s incoming attack.  That might appear to Gay as if they were circling back, but I don't know.


His later details of the burning carriers are interesting:


“The carriers during the day resembled a very large oil field fire, if you've ever seen one.  The fire coming out of the forward and aft end of the ship looked like a blow torch, just roaring white flame and the oil burning, the crude oil, boil up, I don't know how high, and just billowing big red flames belch out of this black smoke.  The dive bombers told me they saw this smoke at 18,000 feet that day and really did make a nice fire and they'd burn for awhile and blow up for awhile and I was sitting in the water hollering ‘Hooray, Hooray.’  I was in a funny position to be cheering for the thing, but I was really tickled to see the dive bombers really pasting them even though they were in pretty bad shape."


Being from Texas, Gay may well have seen some oil field fires.  And that corroborates pretty well with what the carriers would have looked like.  If you've ever seen footage of aviation gasoline fires, that's what they look like—incredibly dense, choking black smoke with red fires seemingly buried within.  Likewise, we also know that the fires aboard the Japanese carriers were pretty well burned out by the late afternoon.  Everything we know about how big avgas fires on carriers go (taken from the damage analyses of Princeton and Franklin, for instance) suggests that most of the larger ordnance would have "cooked off" within a one to four hour window of time from the initial attack.  Within a few hours the avgas would be pretty much spent as well.  This left the fires feeding on secondary materials within the ships—papers, cooking oil, bedding, furniture, and so on, meaning that the fires would most likely have diminished in apparent intensity to an observer like Gay.  And yet, later in the same passage, we find this:


“...the larger one close to me there, the Akagi, sank just after dark, the cruisers raked her with fire, finished her off...”


This is untrue, as Akagi didn't sink until the following morning, and the sources we have are universal that no gunfire was involved.  Likewise:


“... the other two, the Kaga and the Soryu, burned all night, but they didn't necessarily explode.  As a matter of fact, the Japs were there trying to put the fires out.  I could seem them playing around, searchlights, picking up people and trying, I think they were trying to salvage these two ships; but the explosions that I heard the next morning turned out to be our submarines putting torpedoes into these things and they finished them off.  That was early the next morning just as dawn was cracking.”


There are a number of problems with this.  Even if we believe that Scenario Two is what happened, I'm fairly confident that the only carrier Gay would have been in a position to observe after the dive-bomber attack would have been Akagi.  And even Akagi would have ended up pretty far away from Gay after the attack.

Chart 4:  Akagi at 1010

For the moment, let's accept Scenario Two and decide to deposit Gay in the water somewhere near (and maybe a bit east of) Akagi's 1010 marker, so that he gets a good look at Akagi recovering her final shotai of fighters at 1010.  I've included a map to show this hypothesis [Chart 5].  The orange dot shows where we'll say Gay went down.  It's about 7.5nm NW of where he attacked Soryu (and about 5 minutes flying time).  This is absolutely the farthest point he could have to, ditched, and then still have been in a position to observe aircraft recovery operations aboard any Japanese carrier from close at hand.  The purple lines show the distance outward from Gay's position in the water in nautical miles.  The Japanese carriers are marked in green to show where they were during Gay's attack on Soryu at 0936 or so.  They are marked in blue to indicate their positions at the beginning of the 1020 dive bomber attack.  They are marked in red to indicate where Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu came to a stopping point.


If we run with this hypothesis, then Gay would have been about four miles southeast of where Akagi gets bombed, and could certainly have witnessed the attack on her.  After she's bombed, though, she heads N/NE at 24 knots for another twenty minutes before her rudder gives out at 1042.  That means she would have wound up about 7-8 nautical miles due north of Gay before she goes dead in the water.  From there she would have been almost hull down.  We can see her flight deck from a distance of 8.5 nm, you'll recall.  So he could probably have seen her flight deck, barely.  He would have seen her fires.  But he would not have been able to see much else in the way of any details.


As for the other two carriers, we know that Kaga was probably initially bombed at least eight miles to the W-NW of Akagi's 1010 marker.  After that, she limped off to the north-northwest for two and a half hours before finally going dead in the water around 1:00PM.  She was making perhaps 2-3 knots during that time.  So she probably ended up five to seven miles or so away from where she was attacked—but a minimum of five.  That means that she probably would have been well away to the NW from where Gay is—probably 12-13 nm at minimum.  If that's true, Kaga is over the horizon from Gay.


Likewise, when she gets hit at 1025, Soryu was probably as much as ten miles further N-NE of Akagi. Soryu goes dead in the water almost immediately after being bombed and drifts to a stop, perhaps heading west.  That means that even if Gay had managed to make it to Akagi's 1010 marker (i.e. about 10 nm NW of where he attacked Soryu), Soryu still would probably have been bombed some 13 miles beyond where he splashed down, and again would be over the horizon to a man floating in the water.


In my opinion, the most Gay would have seen of either Kaga or Soryu after the attack would have been smoke columns.  In other words, even if we accept Scenario Two and then put Gay in an advantageous position to observe Akagi's flight operations, this whole business of Gay watching salvage operations and whatnot aboard multiple Japanese carriers, particularly at night, is, in my opinion, complete nonsense.  He couldn't have been anywhere near any of the ships, and was over the horizon from at least two of them.


Conversely, if he was far enough north to have watched the carriers fight their fires during the afternoon (i.e. he somehow made it somewhere in the vicinity of Akagi's final stopping point at 1042), then he absolutely would not have been able to witness Akagi recovering aircraft eight miles south of him at 1010.  Not only that, but he would have had to fly about 16 nm from the point where he attacked Soryu, or 10 minutes flight time.  That seems too long to me.  Not only that, but the details of the Japanese carrier recovering aircraft ring the truest of any elements of his account.  If I had to accept any elements of his account, it would be those recovery details, meaning he had to be close to either Akagi's 0951 or 1010 positions.  Similarly, as for the sinking details Gay relates to us, Kaga and Soryu were both scuttled with torpedoes, not gunfire, and they were both scuttled around sunset on the 4th.  Akagi, of course, didn't go down until the following morning.  So this whole preceding passage of Gay's really puts me off and makes me think he either didn't see either the afternoon's fire-fighting operations or the sinking details of the carriers, or he was simply making stuff up based on accounts he might have read immediately after the battle.




While on the surface Gay's account seems fairly straightforward and internally consistent from what one might call a layperson's point of view, it is actually very confusing and internally inconsistent, even for a fairly knowledgeable historian trying to pick it apart and figure out where he must have been sitting to see Details X, Y, and Z.  I personally don't think Gay saw everything he says he saw.  I think it's possible he may have made it some distance to the north away from Soryu before splashing, and thereafter witnessed some elements of the dive-bomber attack.  He may also have been able to see Akagi burning some miles away.  But I don't think he could have seen everything he claims to have seen.  And I think that some of his details could have been garnered from post-battle accounts.  In other words, his account is a decidedly mixed bag, and not the sort of thing a historian should accept at face value—dramatic though it is.




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